Trauma can disrupt an individual's sense of safety in the world and within themselves. Emotions, sensations, other people, can feel unsettling. Luckily there are options to restore a sense of inner security.
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Imagine you are traveling to South America for the first time. On the itinerary is a guided tour through the jungle. You are excited to experience the jungle, thriving with creatures and lush foliage. Your seasoned guide rhythmically navigates the jungle, vigilant of any cue of danger. You reach to run your fingers across the petal of a vibrant flower. Luckily, your guide cautions you before your exposed to its toxicity. Your appreciation for them grows, as you casually snap a picture. The sense of security your guide provides lets you feel safe enough to take it all in, the vibrant colors, foreign plants, and animals. Deeply captivated by the jungle, you find you strayed off the path and are faced with the most dreadful reality, you are completely alone. You seethe with panic as you feverishly scan the jungle. Your failed effort to locate your guide has thrown you into complete survival mode. Your sense of safety has left with your guide. It’s hard to take in the novelty and beauty of the jungle, all you want is out. You don’t need a picture of the flowers anymore (What’s the point of sharing parts of your life on Facebook if you don’t have one!), that crunch of leaves on the jungle floor no longer sparks curiosity, but instead utter terror. You trudge through the forest desperately hoping to be saved, expending substantial amounts of energy to reach a place of safety.
This is comparable to the daily experience of a traumatized person. The ability to engage in life is impeded by an overly cautious system. Family, friends, work, enjoyment in hobbies, are common casualties in the desperate search for comfort and safety. The world emits a sinister aura, that an individual desperately tries to escape. As a child, your guide is your mom, dad, grandparent(s), and so on. When your “guide” is the source of danger (e.g. checked out in a substance-induced state, physically/verbally/sexually abusive, etc.) the message “You are safe” is not received by the child and is a challenging state for the adult to obtain.
Individuals who experienced a childhood riddled with abuse were deprived of their right to safety. For them, it’s hard to fathom what “safe” feels like. The concept of safety may come easily, but even after rationalizing their external safety, an individual still experiences difficulty sensing internal safety. Individuals who have a history of prolonged abuse often report states of disconnection between mind and body. I’ve often had individuals describe it as if they are watching themselves interact in the world as if an observer of themselves. This is a biological process known as dissociation, the opposite of an integrated system (briefly explained later). It’s a confusing and simultaneous experience of feeling present and not feeling present. Individuals may feel aware of their actions, but out of direct control of them. For an individual who’s only known a life of danger and treachery, and who lacks internal resources to regulate emotions, disengaging from the present is an effective survival strategy.
We all have experienced a level of dissociation when stressed, such as daydreaming or “highway hypnosis”, where you find yourself at your destination with little recollection of how you arrived there. In cases of chronic dissociation, individuals may lose track of time, experience memory loss, and a sense of estrangement from their body and their surroundings.
When working with individuals who have a history of complex trauma, developing a sense of internal safety is the priority.
How to Generate Inner Safety
1. Practice Getting Present
Mindfulness is highly beneficial for your mental health. Not only does practicing presence increase a sense of safety and connectedness, but mindful thinking can also literally help change the structure of your brain and lengthen telomeres, which help you live a longer, healthier life. Mindful eating is a practice that gets you in touch with your senses by generating awareness of different aspects in the process of eating (chewing, salivating, flavor, etc.). Mindful sitting or walking are other great practices that require you to focus on pleasant aspects of your external environment. Find some mindfulness exercises here.
2. Meditate or Not
I highly recommend meditation, yet it may not be for everyone, especially initially following a traumatic experience. The act of sitting and bringing attention to the inner experience can be overwhelming. If you find this to be you, I suggest starting with yoga. Although meditation does not involve thinking, it does not suggest the mind is void of thoughts. The goal is not to eliminate thoughts and feelings, rather it's refraining from engaging in them. Meditation is an impartial awareness, that helps you understand and befriend your thoughts and feelings. Research demonstrates that meditation can reverse changes in the body and brain that have occurred as a result of trauma. Meditation has proven to reduce over-activation in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that plays a central role in our fear response and emotional processing. There are many forms of meditation all with different intentions.
Grounding techniques are strategies used to help create a sense of stability in the body and environment. Weighted blankets are a great non-interactive strategy to increase parasympathetic nervous system activity. Weighted blankets provide deep pressure stimulation, helping to ease sympathetic nervous system arousal, a hallmark of PTSD. Even wearing a backpack with added weight can be useful. Stimulating your five senses or tapping your feet on the ground, holding something familiar are also common strategies. Try these grounding exercises.
4. Find or Create an External Safe Place
It’s important when developing inner safety that your external environment feels safe. A safe place is an area you can retreat to that feels the least vulnerable to harm and feels the most calming. This place allows you the moment to settle and relax. A safe place can be your car, your bedroom, a place in nature, your bed, in private, or with a loving pet. Diffusing essential oils is a quick way to bring in peacefulness. It’s okay to have more than one safe place, but I suggest having a safe place in your home that brings the strongest sense of security (a corner, a room, a shower, etc.). Having an environment that feels secure enough is necessary to be able to develop inner security. Yogasleep offers sounds machines that can help create the most serene environment.
5. If You can’t Find a Safe Place
By using imagery, you can create an inner safe place. The purpose of imagery is to create a place within your mind that brings you a sense of calmness and security. This place can be called upon whenever your experiencing pain or fear. It can be as unique as you like, such as imagining yourself on a special planet or a spaceship, a place in a forest, a beach, a cave, a treehouse, a plane, or a submarine. Your imagination is limitless the important part is that this place speaks to you and serves its purpose. Your imaginary safe place may need specific objects or colors in it. Maybe it requires a security system, or your favorite food or animal. This is a place to retreat to, to regulate uncomfortable emotions, and alleviate stress.
Feeling safe is a primary therapeutic goal when treating complex trauma, partially because it supports the process of integrating the various aspect of an individual’s personality that has been left fragmented due to trauma. Integration helps us differentiate past and present, it’s your ability to reflect on the past while remaining present. We all have a natural disposition to mesh our experiences into a comprehensive life story and sense of self. When we fail to integrate, our personality doesn’t feel coherent or consistent. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and perceptions are uncoordinated, leaving various parts of self-isolated. Creating a sense of safety in some parts of yourself may be easier than others, but don’t get discouraged, focus on those moments of inner safety and with continued practice, your sense of safety can strengthen. Although these exercises are very useful, they do not supplement professional mental health services. I believe everyone could use support from time to time and therapy can be very helpful, but therapy is your individual choice. I do encourage you to find support if these exercises become overwhelming or you decide therapy may complement your healing process.